on words

Yesterday, during the tidying up of my blogs, I read something that I had written mentioning Dan Ruth an American columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner who I first encountered when he wrote for the Tampa Tribune. His politics differ from mine perhaps, but he has a way with words that drew me to his column whenever we were over in FLA.

I learned to read early in life, partly because I was a sickly child and was confined to bed fairly frequently. We were a poor family, but working for larger country estates all of which had library rooms and a willingness to lend books to the children of their servants. Armed with a cheap atlas and a Webster’s dictionary, both bought cheaply at jumble sales, I taught myself to read and to work out where in the world the action that I was reading about was; even fictional works have some factual basis for their locations.

And so began a love of words and language. I have never been much of a linguist, although I used to have sufficient command of French to have negotiated commercial contracts en Francais, and could get by with some factory German when I used to be over there on business, but there is a beauty in some languages that I could appreciate even if I could not understand it. I used to frequent Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park as a teenager just to listen to those on the soapbox for some of them were very good indeed.

Words, written or spoken well, are a joy and it was one of the lessons I learned when the time came for me to get up in front of people and talk. The performance is one element, and an important one, but the choice and order of the words that you use is crucial to get across your message. My experience goes back way beyond PowerPoint and similar packages to the days of flip charts and overhead slides and I was lucky enough to have some professional training to help me. I am not sure that I would have had the confidence to talk for 30-40 minutes without note otherwise.

As I began to write for business the skills of crafting a letter came to me through experience and the support of a long lost business resource, the typing pool: Word processor packages were both boon and curse. The I began to get paid for writing, and the discipline of banging out 1600-1800 words per month for a feature article taught me more about using words to best effect as did the influence of a good editor and the way that the judicious change of a word or two here and there could turn a respectable piece into a good one was a skill that I admired, even if I have not, as yet, grasped it myself.

Another big learning curve was when I began to speak and have my words simultaneously translated. I had already come to understand that I needed to prune out the fillers and padding that permeate our normal speech for people whose first language was not English, but working with translators took that to another level. I used to wear a headset so that I could listen to them, not to check their work, but to pace my speech so that we could match each other’s delivery.

It is a great sadness to me these days to see so many people completely disinterested in their language. Communication is a great social skill. We brag that it is what separates us from the animals and yet it is a skill in decline. Political correctness has robbed us of the great orators. I was so disappointed when I heard Obama give a speech once at a military base. I was watching on television with considerable anticipation because I had heard that he was good, but he went on, and on, and on, and on. His delivery was awful too; speak a few words looking right, pause, look left and say a bit more, pause, look right and speak again. I know that the right, left stuff was to read off the two autocues, but it was too long, way too long. And he was just boring.

The power of spoken words to inspire is perhaps best illustrated by the bad examples; the rabble rousers. I can’t understand most of what Hitler was banging on about, but 5 minutes of listening to one of his speeches and the urge to pack up and head for Poland becomes strong. Bad guys who can talk well will always inspire a following, so why have we allowed the PC brigade to neuter the good guys and gals?

I am not one of the grammar police (if you’ve read this far it should be self evident), I just like to see the language used well and I find myself reading older books more often than recent stuff because they are better written. I prefer older films because the dialogue is better written and delivered.

Yes, I am an old git and will not be around much longer, but I do care about the future for those that I will leave behind and the ability to communicate is as important to us as any of the other crises the planet faces. It is a cornerstone of civilisation, so nurture and protect it as much as any other part of our environment. All words matter.

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